State #23 is in the books! I couldn’t be happier with the marathon I chose for Maine. Originally, I was registered to run the Portland Marathon last fall, but had to bag it due to my stress reaction. Everything really does happen for a reason, because if I’d made it to the start of that race I never would have had the chance to experience the beauty of Carrabassett Valley. I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but this easily makes my list of favorite marathons.
It’s a pretty long drive to get to Sugarloaf (about 10 hours), but that’s not a deterrent for me. I’d originally planned to take this trip alone. My husband and I decided to drive to his family’s lake house in upstate New York on Thursday evening. He was doing a spring project at the house, so I was going to continue north to Sugarloaf on Saturday morning. My friend, Kathy, decided to meet me in Bennington and run the marathon to celebrate her 40th birthday. We left on Saturday morning for the six-hour stretch to Sugarloaf Mountain in Carrabassett Valley.
We left from Bennington, and it was a scenic and enjoyable drive. Less than half of the trip was on an actual highway, with most of the drive being on quaint back roads. The longest stretch of the ride was on stunning Route 16, winding through New Hampshire and Maine. It’s not the route we would have taken if we came directly from the Lehigh Valley, but the drive was breathtakingly beautiful. Between the good company and the views of New England, the six-hour trip seemed to fly by.
We stayed at the Sugarloaf Hotel, which is right on the ski area and the host hotel for the race. The rate was good, and it’s easy to locate. Packet pick up and the pasta dinner are located at the base lodge, which right next to the hotel. The best part? Since the ski area is closed, the hotel is pretty much only open for the marathon runners, so a late checkout was offered. When we asked about it, the guy was so laid back: “Oh yeah, don’t worry about checkout. Aim for 1:00 pm? If that isn’t enough time, whatever. Stay as long as you want.” I can count on one hand how often hotels have allowed late checkout after a race, and even then it’s just until noon or so.
The “Expo” and Pasta Dinner
It was really more just like packet pickup, and exactly what you’d expect from a small town race. There were tables set up so you could pick up your bib and a bag with your shirt. Interestingly enough, there was one vendor set up outside. It was a tent selling Sketchers. It’s funny how Sketchers are all the rage ever since Meb won Boston wearing them!
This course is a good one for people trying qualify for Boston, and I could tell by the atmosphere of the expo and pasta dinner that the field would have some serious runners. The dinner was a little pricey – $17 if you opted for the pasta dinner that you could register for with the marathon. Registering for the dinner got you spaghetti, meat or marinara sauce, bread, salad, cookies, and drinks. The Sugarloaf Hotel offered their own pasta dinner for $24, but it wasn’t advertised anywhere before arriving at the hotel. I pre-registered for the pasta dinner because it didn’t look like there were many local options. Once I was settled, I didn’t want to be traveling around trying to find food. It was a good decision ($17 and all), because the town had some cute restaurants but nothing that looked appropriate for pre- race eats.
The marathon offers shuttle service from different locations in the area, and staying at the Sugarloaf Hotel meant we got door to door service. Shuttles picked us up right at the hotel and dropped us off at the start of the race, which was right by Flagstaff Lake. It was a beautiful backdrop for the start of the marathon and the weather was ideal. Everything was so easy: plenty of bathrooms, easy bag check option and no frills. Just a timing mat and a guy starting the race with a gunshot to send us off on our 26.2 mile journey.
I had an idea of how I’d like to run the race if all the stars were aligned: I was hoping to run about a 7:30 for the first few miles, and then pick it up to a 7:25 through mile 20. Around miles 8-10, I planned for some slower paces because of the hilly terrain. I would resume my 7:25s as soon as the hills were over, and then turn the pace up a little to about a 7:20 around mile 20 if possible. I was shooting for somewhere in the neighborhood of 3:15. Here’s what really happened:
At this point, all I can really say is, WTF? I still can’t really wrap my head around the end result. My Garmin calculated my distance as 26.47 so it’s telling me I ran a 7:12 pace. In reality, it was a 7:17 for 26.2 miles with negative splits! At mile 26, I was still feeling great but the crazy camber in the road took a toll on my left foot and I felt a strange little sensation, almost like a cramp. When I felt it during the race, my thoughts turned to the Knoxville Marathon, where my friend ran the half marathon on some mysterious foot pain and completely fractured her foot. I decided to slow down. I knew I was somewhere around five minutes ahead of my initial goal so anything from that point on was just a bonus.
Back to how this all even happened in the first place. As usual, I went out too fast. I was running in close proximity to a few other girls and my friend, Kathy. I got caught up with staying with the pack instead of running my own race. When I looked at my watch, I realized I was faster than I’d planned and wanted to slow down. I don’t prefer to bank time during marathons and try to avoid doing so (although sometimes I get caught up in the excitement and it happens). Personally, it always results in dead legs and feeling like complete shit after mile 20. I dropped away from everyone and reminded myself that I trained to run a certain pace and to relax. Mile 2 only resulted in being 5 seconds slower, but it caused me to drop back from the pack, settle into a comfortable pace and run my own race. It was faster than the 7:25 that I’d estimated, but I felt exceptionally good so I decided to go with it. I negotiated with myself, with my new intention to keep these miles between a 7:15-7:20, at least until after I got through the big hills in miles 8-10. For the most part, I did – with the exception of mile 4 and mile 7.
The course was not closed to traffic (which wasn’t a big deal since the race is in the middle of nowhere) and so I was running as close to the shoulder of the road as possible. There was a girl on the course that took off at the start (I only remember her because she was wearing a windbreaker, which I thought was strange since it was relatively warm out) and I caught her at mile 4. I was behind her and went to pass her, but she sped up to keep me behind her. I wasn’t racing – mile 4 is way too early to play that game. The problem is, she would speed up significantly to keep me from passing her and then slow down. Eventually, I got sick of being stuck behind her and felt like the whole speed up/slow down thing was wasting too much energy. I picked up the pace to put some distance between us, resulting in a 7:10 for mile 4. She caught me again around mile 7, and we played that same dumb game again until she saw her family on the course and stopped to unzip the sleeves off of her jacket and get some fuel. I saw her one more time after the hill at mile 10 but then I shook her for good. My pace was a little faster for those two miles, but remained pretty consistent otherwise.
As the course crested the steep hill at the end of mile 10, it begins an extremely steep descent. Runners came blowing past me but I kept telling myself to hold back because my quads would pay for it later. I continued to run a steady pace through the half marathon point, which is when I really think the race begins. Once I hit mile 13, I was beginning the gradual descent that the course is known for so I adjusted my pace. I renegotiated and told myself to hold between a 7:10-7:15 through mile 20. That lasted through mile 16, and I began picking up the pace and decided to just go with it. At this point, I still didn’t think I’d be that much faster than 3:15 when all was said and done, since my Garmin was slightly off at each mile marker and I’d gone out faster than I’d intended. I figured I’d be toast by mile 20, when the rolling hills hit. Instead, I kicked it up a notch and added a few sub 7 minute miles to the mix and felt great, other than my foot cramp at the end of mile 25/beginning of 26. I still don’t know if it was the course, or if the odds were truly in my favor that day, but I felt incredible and I’m glad I went with my gut early on in the race.
My official time was 3:10:21, and I got 2nd in my age group:
Kathy PR’d by 11 minutes, running a 3:27, winning 1st in her age group, and qualifying for Boston by 17+ minutes! I’m so happy that she had such a great day and will be lining up at the starting line in Hopkinton with me next April. I was really impressed by the other runners in the small field at this marathon: of 504 runners, I was #52 overall – that means that 51 people ran a marathon in under 3:10. That is really freaking cool. Two women broke three hours, which is seriously cool. For such a small field, those are some fast runners.
By the time both Kathy and I finished and had a few minutes to discuss, they already began the awards. The clock was still showing that the race hadn’t even hit the four hour mark. I was happy they started so early, but a little surprised since I figured there were still a good number of people out on the course. There were post race massages and a small food spread available. Bags were organized under a tent and it was easy to claim your belongings. The shuttles took you back to pretty much wherever you wanted to go: the start of the 15K, the Sugarloaf Hotel, or the marathon start at Flagstaff Lake.
It was a very well organized event and we kept saying how easy everything was to navigate. The course was by far one of the most scenic ones I’ve had the chance to experience. The whole race follows Route 27, with spectacular views of Sugarloaf Ski Area, lakes, rivers, ponds, and mountains. There aren’t many spectators, but since it is point to point and not closed to traffic you often saw the same spectators several times. Your bib had your name printed on it, so people could cheer for you as you ran by. The volunteers were amazing, and they actually wore signs pinned to their shirts that said “Gatorade” or “Water”. A possible drawback to this race: the races (both marathon and 15K) finish in the town of Kingfield. If you are finishing in the neighborhood of 4:30+, there is a little more traffic on the route and it gets a little backed up in the final mile. The runners are already running on the shoulder and with cars and traffic, this area is pretty small and the surface is very uneven.
It was a successful day for both of us and an incredible weekend overall! If you are looking for a marathon in Maine, Sugarloaf is not to be missed.